Diabetes Forecast

Chef Art Smith Tackles Type 2 Diabetes

By Lindsey Wahowiak ,

Art Smith in a booth at Art and Soul, his Washington, D.C., restaurant.

If your first encounter with chef Art Smith was on TV several years ago, you probably wouldn't recognize him today. Oprah Winfrey's former personal chef and a runner-up on the first season of Top Chef Masters looked like a large, jolly, gregarious Southern cook with a booming laugh. Today, he's slim, rocking cool sneakers, and likely to be wearing running shorts under his jeans and chef's jacket.

A Recipe from Art Smith

Art Smith's Southern
Oven-Unfried Chicken

Smith, 52, has taken the food world by storm in the past several years. But maybe more impressive than his four restaurants, his two cookbooks, and his work with Oprah is his own transformation. Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in his late 40s, Smith committed to losing 100 pounds. Now, the self-styled former "fat kid" runs marathons in addition to the sprinter's pace he keeps up in his day-to-day life. His weight loss and continued physical activity helped him go off metformin, and he keeps everything in check with diet and exercise.

Smith sat down with Diabetes Forecast to discuss how he went from being a shy Southern kid to the king of comfort foods (and how he makes those foods healthier).

Tell me a little bit about your history with diabetes before your diagnosis.

I grew up and spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house. There was always food that was sensitive to my grandfather's condition [he had type 1 diabetes]. That's how I came to know it. My grandmother was constantly coming up with recipes. I remember in those days it was saccharin. I remember her making all kinds of treats of that sort. And I also remember her scolding my grandfather to eat properly.

My grandfather died of a sudden heart attack. It was traumatic for my mother. I remember later my mother coming home from the doctor: She discovered she had [prediabetes]. She was really upset. I remember her being careful, and then I remember not hearing another word of it. She was able to keep her type 2 diabetes in check. My father came out about his [diagnosis] about 10 years ago. He had had the diabetes, too, and kept it from my mother. So for me, it was always a thought in my head, "It could happen."

Can you describe your diagnosis?

I had been [prediabetic] for about five years. Five years ago, I was opening Table Fifty-Two [in Chicago]. I started feeling very tired, taking long, long naps in the middle of the day. I opened [Art and Soul restaurant in Washington, D.C.], same thing. I was aware that something was wrong. The doctor said, "Art, lose some weight. Feel better. That'll fix everything." I had a scare where I thought I was having a heart attack. After all that, I decided, "Forget this stuff." I was looking for someone to help me. At the time I weighed 334 pounds.

[As chefs] we know how to cook food that's delicious and good for you, but chefs are notorious for not eating that way. I was a big fan of late-night eating. Lots of sodium and things like that.

So you got a trainer or a coach?

A man came into my life. His name is Az Ferguson [coauthor of The Game On! Diet]. He observed me for about a week. He said, "Well, what do you like to do?" I said, "Walk," so he said, "We're gonna walk a lot." I said, "Dance," so he said, "We're gonna dance a lot."

So I walked, I started jogging, I cried and said, "I hate it!" Eventually the pain subsided and I started seeing a difference.

The weight started going. In fact, in the first five to six months I probably lost around 65 pounds. The fact is, even if you take medication, you still have to exercise, you still have to eat properly. It is not a cure. Under my doctor's supervision, I've been three years with no medication. I've been clearly able to manage with diet and exercise.

Art Rock

Smith works out to preset playlists that add up to one hour of music. We've compiled some of his favorite songs and artists for a playlist that you can use to work out, too. It clocks in at a little more than 28 minutes.
Lady Gaga: "Bad Romance"

Cher and Christina Aguilera: "Express," Burlesque soundtrack

Glee cast: "We Are Young" (fun. cover)

Christina Aguilera: "Lift Me Up," Hope for Haiti Now

Glee cast: "Animal" (Neon Trees cover)

Kings of Leon: "Use Somebody," Only by the Night

Glee cast: "Vogue" (Madonna cover, by fellow Chicagoan Jane Lynch!)

That's great! How do you stay motivated?

I think you have to constantly look for that happy place. My friend is an attorney who's very astute about his own health. He gave me an iPod of music, hour-long mixes. If I finished a mix, I knew I had done enough [exercise].

Music is such a great way to keep you occupied. I have to have music and I have to have pretty, OK? I love running here [in Washington, D.C.] and on the Mall, because I love seeing all the beautiful buildings. In fact, I first started running here, from the restaurant to the Lincoln Memorial [a little more than 2 miles].

Once you lose a great deal of weight, and you go from size 52 pants to size 36, you say, "Wow!" You have to buy all new clothes. I always have a pair of running shoes on, and usually a pair of running shorts under my jeans [so I can exercise when I can find the time].

You're around food every day, like the chicken and waffles here at Art and Soul. How do you make sure you eat properly and stay focused on the mission?

First of all, I've had more chicken and waffles than anybody on earth! I've eaten a lot of great stuff. It doesn't interest me anymore. If I have my breakfast, I'm cool about it.

I'll tell you something: I had a cookie yesterday. But I'm going to be completely transparent about it. If you do go to that place, just make sure you go walk around a little more, you go exercise. It's all about portion.

For me, I do not skip meals and just have my breakfast. And I force myself to sleep, because if you don't sleep, you'll gain weight. Last night, I was in bed by 9.

You're very open about your diagnosis and your pursuit of good health. What inspired you to come forward about it?

You know, once I lost the weight, Oprah called me. She said, "We're doing a show on diabetes type 2. We'd like you to come on and be our poster boy, and talk about how, by losing the weight, you've reversed the symptoms." We shot the show. My parents were really excited about it, and my poor father passed away during the [taping of the] show. I went, of course, to be with my mother. I said, "Mother, I think it was diabetes." And you know, the caregiver always feels like they've done something wrong. But a person can have it and not come to terms with it, in terms of their diet or exercise or taking their medications, because [diabetes] just destroys your organs. She didn't want to believe it until she saw the show. After seeing the show, she was convinced; she agreed with me.

And so you continue on the good-health message today.

People want to know. People respond to public figures being open with challenges. It makes them human. The great people I've worked with, I mean, Oprah—what hasn't she been open with? I'm 52 years old, looking at my life, and thinking, "What can I do that will further help, inspire, and benefit?" If I can be open about diabetes and being gay, and preservation of Southern food and heritage, I'm going to keep doing what I do and loving it.

So what's next for you?

I'm writing a book, my memoirs about dealing with [diabetes]. Everybody says, "Do a diet book!" I personally felt my memoirs of life as a chef, and my weight and my dealing with it, were much more real than just, "OK, just eat this, this, this." I was talking to [Lady] Gaga's mama. She said to me, "When Stefani writes a song, she does not write with the intention that she wants a hit. She just wants a great song." It's all about the intention. I think, as an artist, you want to create something or, as a chef, you want to make something that people are going to embrace.

Giving Back

Smith devotes a lot of time to charity work. "Forgive me for this, but I wish to be the Bono of food," he says, referring to the U2 singer and humanitarian activist.


  • Common Threads, a nonprofit organization he founded with his husband, Jesus Salgueiro, that teaches at-risk kids to identify, cook, and enjoy fresh, healthy food.
  • Cooking outreach trips to Tahiti and the Arctic.
  • Visits to cook and work with students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.
  • A YouTube question-and-answer video answering families' questions about healthful foods, in cooperation with Sesame Workshop (and costarring Elmo).


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